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Commitment to community: Abe Wandersman offers expertise to help Columbia thrive

The Midlands is currently experiencing an exciting time of growth. Visionaries throughout the community are passionately working to make Columbia a hub for innovation and culture. But, how do we take this passion and translate it into success? Lucky for us, we have an expert on reaching outcomes right here in our community.

Dr. Abraham (“Abe”) Wandersman has decades of experience related to improving programs and communities. His work, which focuses on how to bridge the gap between research and practice, has received international acclaim. Though he recently retired from the University of South Carolina where he was a Professor of Psychology, Abe is busier than ever. Among his various projects, he was the Principal Investigator on the evaluation of SCALE (Spreading Community Accelerators through Learning and Evaluation), a national community coalition capacity-building initiative led by 100 Million Healthier Lives. In recognition of this work, he recently received the 2017 Outstanding Evaluation Award from the American Evaluation Association He describes the award as a “win-win” for those involved in the work – not only the evaluation team, but also for 100 Million Healthier Lives and the participating communities, and for the field of evaluation and community health improvement as a whole. I took the opportunity to sit down with Abe to discuss the award and his reflections on how Columbia can continue to thrive.

The Key to Success: Participation plus Strategy to Overcome Mediocrity

“There is a lot of mediocrity that goes out in the world every day. Things can be so much better. Whether we are talking about education, or healthcare, or our roads, there is just so much that can be improved. It is easy to look back and say, ‘Why did you make that mistake? Couldn’t you have seen that?’ It’s not that easy. I have been interested, for a long time, perhaps forever in my career, on how we can make a better world. What that means you can’t rely on experts alone to do things for people. People have ideas about what they think it is important. They have energy to contribute to make things better. That needs to be capitalized on.”

The core belief that people can improve their own lives is something that has been with Abe since the beginning of his career. Early in his graduate studies, Abe became fascinated with understanding what people can do for themselves to solve problems. He studied this in neighborhood organizations. Specifically, he was interested to know why some people join neighborhood organizations while others don’t. He also wanted to know why some neighborhood organizations were successful and long-lasting while others dissolved overtime. Through his work with neighborhood organizations, Abe became convinced that participation was paramount. “This issue of people participating and trying to make a difference in their own world became an important issue for me,” he described. “I became convinced that we as human beings don’t just want experts telling us what to do.”

That idea lasted as he began his early career in academia. “Even as somewhat of an expert, as a professor, as someone who has gotten a PhD and studied an area, I didn’t think I should make decisions for people. That they really needed to be responsible for their own lives. So, I wanted to facilitate and make it easier for them to figure out what the right thing to do is to solve a problem and then to implement that right thing and then to see if it worked or not.”

These early ideas led to his groundbreaking work in Empowerment Evaluation, which is an approach to evaluation that provides communities with the tools and knowledge that allows them to monitor and evaluate their own performance. Over the years, Abe has received numerous acknowledgements for his work in this area. In 1998, he received the Myrdal Award for Evaluation Practice from the American Evaluation Association. In 2000, he was elected president of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), and in 2005, he was awarded the Distinguished Theory and Research Contributions Award by the SCRA. He has served as the co-editor of three books on empowerment evaluation. He has also co-authored several books on Getting To Outcomes, which is essentially a “how to” manual for Empowerment Evaluation. In 2008, Getting to Outcomes won the American Evaluation Association’s Outstanding Publication Award. His work traveled around the globe, providing him with the opportunity to consult with organizations as far away as Thailand and with leading national organizations that include the Centers for Disease Control. He values the partnerships that stem from this work; partnerships like his work with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement which lead to the Outstanding Evaluation Award. To him, this work shows that evaluation can be a partner in facilitating change.

But this work means much more to Abe personally. Abe is active in the Jewish community in Columbia and has been very involved in coordinating events in remembrance of the Holocaust. This is because Abe’s parents were Holocaust survivors. “My father’s mother, father, uncles, aunts, three siblings were killed by the Nazi’s. One sibling survived. In my mother’s family, none of her immediate family survived. I was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949.” Tragically, that wasn’t the end of the heartbreak for his family. Abe said at the age of 6, his younger sister, who was 4, died as a result of medical malpractice. “To lose a child after all that she had lost brought my mother bouts of depression. When I was growing up, I wanted to help people avoid that kind of grief and unnecessary problems like medical errors.”

These childhood experiences drove Abe to pursue a degree in psychology. He was initially interested in clinical psychology, but became fascinated with improving the quality of life for communities overall. These personal experiences and passions have facilitated an impressive career that has not only taken him worldwide, but enabled him to be part of change locally as well.

What This Means for Columbia

Throughout his 40 years in Columbia, Abe has had the chance to be involved in change in the Midlands. One of his favorite memories involves work conducted with the Governor’s office several years back. He recalls how the head of the Social Services Cabinet had an eye-opening experience when she realized that government could be accountable in a proactive way. This paved the opportunity to bring Getting To Outcomes to agencies including the Department of Juvenile Justice and Health and Human Services. Abe has also had the chance to work on other initiatives in the state including in education, teen pregnancy prevention and substance abuse prevention.

When asked his advice for the Midlands, Abe commented that there seems to be a consistent gap between people having ideas for change and actually being ready for change. He said the key is to help organizations be strategic with limited time, energy and money.

He proposes that government agencies and nonprofit organizations ask themselves 10 questions: “Are you doing the things that are really important? Are you addressing the real needs? Are you clear about what you want to achieve? Are you using things that have been shown to work? Are these things that you are doing – do they fit well with the people you are working with and serving? Is it culturally competent does it resonate with those you are serving? Do you have the ability or capacity to do those things well or are you just doing them in the name or on the surface? Have you planned carefully for how you are going to do this thing that you are doing or are there parts that you sometimes miss? Have you really thought through how to do it? As you are doing it, are there things you could be learning? Do you change your plan to make it more useful? Once you’ve done all that, have you accomplished what you initially planned to achieve? Then, what have you learned that you could do better next time? And if you were successful, how do you make sure it keeps going?”

But it is not just up to organizations in our community to make a difference. The change can – and should – begin with us. “People should step up and play responsible roles. We are very good in this country about talking about what our rights are, but we haven’t been very good about talking about our responsibilities. We have rights and responsibilities to others. Accountability is government or nonprofits being accountable, but I don’t think people want to be passive recipients of what these organizations offer. If you want to be involved in saying things could be better, we need to step up and actually do something about it.”


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